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My thoughts spin in sync with the clothes in the washing machine. Photo: Peter Keegan/Keystone/Getty Images
My thoughts spin in sync with the clothes in the washing machine. Photo: Peter Keegan/Keystone/Getty Images

Spinning a yarn in the laundry room

Your laundry has the secrets to your soul

It’s a dog-eat-dog world downstairs in the building’s laundry room on Sunday evenings. Too many procrastinating apartment dwellers, too few washers and dryers, a typical New York problem. Mornings are better. Today, Saturday afternoon, it could go either way. I bring in my cart full of dirty clothes, hoping I won’t run into Evil Smoking Neighbour (ESN), whose main job in life is to give my whole family lung cancer. But no, I think ESN huffs and puffs and sends her washing to the Chinese laundry down the street. Only Bearded Guy is down here today, and I see three empty machines, hallelujah.

I fling things in—towels in machine No.1, long underwear in 2, one hot wash, one cold wash. In No.3, warm wishy-washy wash, the things I’m not sure of, optimistically gambling that I won’t ruin my spouse’s new shirt. Bindaas!

When we were children on the beach in India, I was terrible at every game and dropped every ball when I was in the fielding team. It would come flying towards me, I would go into a state of paralytic panic, it would fall to the ground at my feet, and I would squirm in humiliation as my older cousins yelled, “Arre, dhobi!" Now I squirm in shame that we so casually used a whole caste of people, washermen, as a way to insult each other.

Watching the clothes go round and round always sends me into some kind of trance. I sometimes feel unmoved by sad movies or sad stories, but there’s something about doing my family’s laundry that pitches me into emotional extremes and outlandish fantasy. It’s as if, as soon as the clothes start spinning, so do I. See those jeans flying past? Those are my daughter’s jeans, the legs of which are longer than her whole body when she was born. This pulls me right back to her birth and the hormone-fuelled insanity of those first few weeks. Then there’s that shirt…oh, oh, Tom’s T-shirt with the hole in the shoulder! I love that shirt. The machine goes into the rinse cycle, and I find myself weeping at the thought of what would happen to the dirty laundry if he died, could I ever bear to wash it?

This sounds crazy but just consider: It’s all there, the mundane parts of life jumbled up with the sublime. The mundane parts that continue even when a child leaves, a river floods, a heart stops…. The milk, oil, paint, semen, turmeric, ink, strawberry juice of life, spinning around in that machine.

I don’t pray, I don’t visit any temples, but I do like my meditative moment in front of the machines. In some weird way, it settles me. Maybe everything does come out in the wash. Maybe the fact that dirty clothes become clean allows me the delusion that you can control your life just a tiny bit.

My reverie is interrupted by Young Thing With Visible Thong (VT), who arrives with a basket of filmy negligibles. She is on her mobile; ergo, I am invisible. She walks through me and magically comes out on the other side. I look at the doorway and hope that Three-Cat Man from the third floor will show up. He’s always good for a chat.

Laundry in Karjat, Maharashtra, where we spend our monsoons, is more social. The big flat rocks by the river are perfect for washing clothes, and the minute the sun comes out, the village women rush over with their bundles. The immortal sound of paddles going thwack, thwack, thwack on the stone…. Of course, it is not as informal as our New York laundry room where Three-Cat Man, Young Thing With VT, Bearded Guy and I neither know nor care about each others’ antecedents. In Karjat, they care. One rock for the Adivasis, one rock for the Hindus, and never the twain shall meet.

Data speeds rise, governments fall, species go extinct, the planet heats up, the Higgs boson does a little dance…and women keep doing laundry. Yes, Bearded Guy joins us sometimes, but really, unless you’re an official dhobi, it’s still mostly women’s work.

We dhobis have special insight. I recently read Longbourn, Jo Baker’s excellent novel taking on Pride And Prejudice from the servants’ point of view. Sarah, the maid at Longbourn who picks up after the Bennett sisters, says, “The young ladies might behave like they were smooth and sealed as alabaster statues underneath their clothes, but then they would drop their soiled shifts on the bedchamber floor, to be whisked away and cleansed, and would thus reveal themselves to be the frail, leaking, forked bodily creatures that they really were." She who sees your dirty panties knows the secrets of your soul.

The clothes are dry. The new shirt—oh, no, the new shirt! Two hours ago, it was adult size. Now it’s a perfect fit for my rather small child. I gape at it in horror, although why I should be surprised I really don’t know. It was clear long ago that nobody is ever going to give me the Housewife of the Year award.

Bearded Guy shoves my cart by accident. Freshly cleaned T-shirts fall on the muddy floor. I should wash them again, but then, as previously mentioned, I’m not in the running for the Housewife of the Year award. I pick them up, shake them a bit, and throw them back in the cart with the clean clothes. In the immortal words of Harry Belafonte, now that I am ninety-three, I don’t give a damn, you see.

Sohaila Abdulali is a New York-based writer. She writes a fortnightly column on women in the 21st century.

Also Read | Sohaila’s previous Lounge columns

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